As one of the most iconic US bombers of all time, the B-25 Mitchell will forever be remembered for its use in the Doolittle Raid against Japan in 1942 and subsequent role in both the Pacific and Europe during the Second World War. One often overlooked aspect of the twin-engine bomber, however, was its use by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Indeed, throughout the course of the war, the VVS received 861 B-25s of various models, accounting for 10% of the Soviet Long Range Aviation’s (Aviatsiya Dalnego Deystviya, ADD) fleet. As a country whose aviation industry focused on producing fighters and ground attack aircraft, the Soviet Union repeatedly requested that the US provide four-engine bombers such as the B-17 and B-24 as part of the lend lease program. The US, however, turned down each request. Instead, the VVS was given B-25s, and like all other aircraft received from the US, the Soviets were able to make the necessary field modifications to place the aircraft in an effective role on the Eastern Front. In general, the Soviet airmen who flew the Mitchells had only positive things to say about the US-made twin-engine bomber, and throughout the course of the war, Soviet B-25s had a tremendous impact on the war on the Eastern Front.
B-25s first started to arrive in the Soviet Union only after the opening of the so-called Persian Corridor, from allied Iran through Soviet Azerbaijan, through which a large number of lend-lease supplies were delivered, though the Mitchells would later be delivered via the Alaska-Siberia ferry route. The new twin-engine bombers eventually made their way to Monino outside Moscow, where Soviet pilots began to learn how to fly the American aircraft. One Soviet pilot, Aleksandr Vasilevich Dudakov, recalled having initial difficulty with the new bomber, as the control switches in the cockpit were labelled in English. “We all used to learn the German language, and here the equipment was made in America. The labels said ‘ON’… and ‘OFF’ [in English]. Some devices were very clear: the artificial horizon [attitude indicator] was obviously an artificial horizon,” Dudakov stated.
Soviet pilots were quickly able to overcome the language gap, and soon develop a deep fondness for the Mitchell bombers. “The B-25 is an interesting machine,” pilot Dmitriy Petrovich Vaulin recounted. “[It had] amazing instrumentation, the cabin equipment was nice. The motors were good… these American planes were all much simpler, and they worked better.”
Aircrews were not the only ones who tested and experimented with the new B-25s in the Spring of 1942, as the Soviet Research Institute of the Air Force had been running tests to determine how, exactly, the Mitchell should be used in combat. Researchers quickly determined that, when compared to the Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-4, the B-25 had a greater maximum speed and longer range. It was also noted that on-board conditions were better in the Mitchell than the Ilyushin, and that its “flying, including take-off and landing, was so simple, so young pilots could quickly put into operation.” As one test pilot, MA Hyuhtikov, summed, “The B-25DP, despite its heavy weight (13,700 kg), is simple to pilot in takeoff and landing, relatively easy to fly on one engine; it has a good longitudinal and quite satisfactory lateral stability.”
Researchers also noted that the defensive armament in the B-25 was superior to the Il-4, though Soviet aircrews quickly recognized the American bomber’s Achilles heel, and asked the North American aviation company to rectify the issue. As the early-model B-25s lacked a tail gunner, Luftwaffe pilots quickly learned the Mitchell’s blind spots, and German Bf-110 night fighter pilots developed a tactic in which they would follow a B-25 below the bomber until the Mitchell began its landing approach, upon which time the German fighter would attack. As Dudakov explained, the blind spot “enabled the German night fighter Bf-110 to seamlessly adapt to the bottom of the plane and follow it to the landing airfield, where the crew lost vigilance. [This tactic] killed several of IL-4s and B-25s.” A single tail gun was thus added to the Soviet B-25s in an attempt to cover the bomber’s blind spot, and starting in 1944, the VVS received B-25J models complete with two 12.77mm machine guns in the tail.
With these kinks worked out and aircrews trained to fly the American bombers, B-25s were given to the 37th, 125th, and 16th regiments of the 222nd division in the Spring of 1942. It quickly became clear that the Mitchells were unsuited for carrying out the low altitude close air support missions on the Eastern Front, and the 222nd was consequently given over to ADD (long range aviation) on September 29, 1942. It was determined that Soviet Pe-2s, Il-2s, and lend-lease A-20s were better for low altitude missions, but the Soviets recognized the B-25’s potential as a long-range bomber given its large bomb load, strong armament, and quality navigation and radio equipment. Shortly after its transfer to ADD, the 222nd began carrying out long-range night raids against German targets in the rear, which would be its primary role through the end of the war.
In late 1942 and into 1943, B-25 aircrews generally carried out strikes on German railway junctions, airfields, and other such rear areas, but in the second half of the war, the Mitchell crews bombed targets in cities such as Warsaw, Breslau, Konigberg, Tilsit, and Berlin. Towards the end of the war, however, due to the fact that B-25s required more room to take off and the advancing Soviet forces often had to make use of dilapidated and makeshift airfields, Il-4s were at times chosen for bombing missions over the Mitchells, despite the fact that their bomb loads were significantly lower than the American-made bombers. Nevertheless, the Soviets were able to modify some B-25s to convert them into transport aircraft. Mitchells were gutted out to carry as many as 20 people, and could haul up to one ton of supplies over a distance of 2,240 kilometers. Moreover, B-25s were used as reconnaissance aircraft, as they were capable of flying at night and were equipped with modern navigation and monitoring systems. On such flights, crews would place a 215 gallon fuel tank in the bomb bay, which would increase flight time by up to 7 hours.
B-25 were thus highly respected among Soviet bomber crews in the Great Patriotic War. One Soviet fighter pilot who test flew a Mitchell, Sergey Yakovlevich Tatushin, simply said, “It’s a beautiful aircraft.” Of the 861 B-25s delivered to the Soviet Union, 497 survived the war. In accordance with the terms of the lend-lease program, under the supervision of US officials, the majority of the Soviet Union’s American-made aircraft were destroyed, but not all. Indeed, the 330th regiment, stationed in Babruysk, continued flying B-25s until the introduction of the Tu-4 (a reverse engineered B-29) in 1949. The B-25 rightfully has its place in history as a major contributor to the Allied victory over the Axis powers in World War Two. Nevertheless, like so much about the Eastern Front, Soviet Mitchells were soon forgotten in the West. While Soviet air forces generally focused on providing close air support to the Red Army, the ADD did carry out long-range missions against rear targets, and the B-25s were undoubtedly the best aircraft they had for the job. The B-25 with Soviet marking truly was a beautiful aircraft (as were all Mitchells).